ZURICH—Roman Polanski, the 76-year-old director of such acclaimed cinematic masterpieces as Chinatown and The Pianist, was arrested Saturday evening at the Zurich airport as he arrived to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.
Polanski has been wanted in Los Angeles since 1978 on charges he raped 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977. At the time, Polanski pleaded guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor" and was released from jail to undergo psychiatric evaluation. The then-44-year-old director fled the country before the scheduled statutory rape sentencing hearing, and a warrant for his arrest was issued immediately.
According to the Los Angeles Times, after learning last week of the director's intent to travel to Switzerland, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office "sent a provisional arrest warrant to the U.S. Justice Department, which presented it to Swiss authorities."
According to LA district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, this was not the first time prosecutors tried to intercept Polanski on foreign soil after hearing he planned a trip to a country that has signed an extradition treaty with the U.S. Previous efforts failed because "in the end, he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,” Gibbons said.
This time, however, Polanski did made the trip to receive a prestigious film award. His arrest may open the final chapter in a three-decade drama.
In a statement issued Sunday, Swiss authorities cautioned against any expectation of a quick outcome.
"Yesterday evening Roman Polanski was arrested at his arrival and was put in provisional detention in view to extradition based on a U.S. arrest warrant," said the Swiss Justice Ministry. "The U.S. authorities are accusing Roman Polanski of sexual acts with minors, specifically in a case of 1977 with a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles. Since the end of 2005 the U.S. authorities are searching worldwide for Roman Polanski.
"A U.S. arrest warrant against Roman Polanski exists since 1978. Whether Roman Polanski will be effectively extradited to the USA or not, can be established only after the extradition process judicially has been finalised. It is possible to appeal at the federal penal court of justice against an arrest warrant in view to extradition, as well as against an extradition decision. Their decisions can be taken further to the federal court of justice. In respect to this pending process, it is not possible to give any further information."
Reuters reported reaction to the news was swift and hostile in France, where Polish-born Polanski holds citizenship and currently lives.
"French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said he was 'stunned' by the news, adding that both he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to see the acclaimed director returned swiftly to his family," Reuters noted Sunday. "French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also issued a statement, saying he had spoken to his Swiss counterpart to demand that Polanski's rights were fully respected and that a 'favorable' solution be rapidly found."
Switzerland took some heat from Poland's filmmakers association, which also rose quickly to his defense.
"We do not understand why the Swiss invited Polanski to a film festival, where he was to have received a life's achievement award, and then arrested him," association president Jacek Bromski said. "We regard that as a scandalous situation and an example of incomprehensible overzealousness."
Prior to Saturday, Polanski restricted his travel outside France to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, where he felt the risk of capture was negligible.
It is unlikely that the married father of two will have to serve any jail time in the United States if he winds up back here, but it is not out of the question. Geimer, who is now 45 and married with children, has called for the 31-year-old charges to be dropped. While not even Polanski has denied culpability in the scandal, recent court filings raised serious questions about backroom deals in 1978 between prosecutors and a judge who was worried his public image would suffer if he didn't send Polanski to prison. Polanski's legal team began attempting to have the charges dismissed in 2009, following the release of Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which alleged judicial misconduct in the original court jockeying.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza acknowledged there had been "substantial misconduct" in the original case but said he would not consider setting the charges aside unless Polanski returned to the States. Espinoza gave Polanski until May 7 to turn himself in. When the director did not appear in court, Espiniza officially refused to throw out the case.
Polanski's lawyer, Herve Temime, told Good Morning America Monday that the director instructed him to fight extradition to the United States on the 31-year-old rape charges.
"He wants to struggle," Temime said, adding, "It could be possible for us to obtain his freedom."